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Kids are feeling anxiety as the world opens up again

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Recently, I scheduled a playdate for my 6-year-old with a good friend she hadn’t seen in months because of the pandemic. She was so excited — until, suddenly, she wasn’t. As the day approached, my daughter grew more and more irritable. The day before, she demanded that we bake cookies and make signs for her friend. When I told her we couldn’t, she exploded in an angry meltdown.

After she calmed down, I sat down with her to try to figure out what was going on. She tearfully admitted that she was terrified: She worried that her friend wouldn’t like her anymore, which is why she was trying engineer the perfect playdate — to ensure that she could win her friend back after months of being out of touch.

If you, as a parent, have been experiencing anxiety about the “return to normal,” your kids are likely to be harboring similar feelings, perhaps even to a greater degree. “We’ve gone from pause to fast-forward,” says Rebecca Schrag Hershberg, a clinical psychologist who specializes in early-childhood social emotional development and mental health. “It’s just really overstimulating. For all of us, and certainly kids.”

On the one hand, these struggles can seem counterintuitive. Isn’t this exactly what we’ve been waiting for — for things to get back to the way they were? For our kids to once again enjoy birthday parties, camp and visits with extended family? Absolutely — but we also need to remember that big transitions can be hard for children. Going from hardly seeing anyone and not doing anything, to seeing everyone and doing everything, can be confusing and overwhelming.

It’s been more than a year since we led “normal” lives, which is a very, very long time for kids — especially toddlers and preschoolers. They may not remember what things were like before, so the return to normal may actually feel like a departure from normal — the changes may feel jarring instead of reassuring. Compared with who they were before the pandemic, little children right now “are facing the world as completely different people,” Hershberg says.

Some may also be struggling because they don’t understand why the activities they were told were unsafe during the pandemic are suddenly safe again, so it can be helpful to explain why. You can tell them, for instance, that there are scientists and doctors in charge who conduct research to figure out what’s safe, and that you listen to them and do what they advise. The very idea that there are people in charge of these big issues can be reassuring for kids, Hershberg says, and can help them understand that you have good reasons for changing your behavior.

Children are also still processing the challenges and traumas of the past year, which means that they are navigating situations with a higher level of baseline stress. “There’s just less of a buffer between them and feeling overwhelmed,” explains Tamar Chansky, a psychologist who specializes in childhood anxiety. A few weeks ago, when I took my kids to the dentist for the first time in 18 months, they were much more nervous than usual. We even had to opt out of X-rays for my daughter, because she took one look at the machine and started screaming.

These kinds of reactions may seem like overreactions, but remember that children aren’t as adept as adults at managing their feelings. “Their brains are not fully developed, they don’t have as many problem-solving skills as we do, and they don’t have the coping skills we do when feeling emotionally overwhelmed,” says child and adolescent psychologist Emily W. King.

So when kids feel anxious, they may not be able to put their feelings into words — but they might display telltale behaviors. They can be irritable or clingy and have meltdowns over seemingly tiny things. They might have trouble sleeping or have nightmares. They may struggle with everyday choices, Hershberg says, like deciding what to wear or what to eat for breakfast. They may also regress, or start doing things that they used to do that you thought they had grown out of. This week, for instance, my daughter picked out a bunch of old board books for me to read to her at bedtime, books that we hadn’t read for years.

What should you do when your kids act this way? First and foremost, remember that these reactions are normal, and try your best to show empathy and patience, Chansky says. Say something like “This is really hard,” or “This is feeling like a lot, isn’t it?” Let them know it’s okay for them to feel whatever they’re feeling. Don’t be like the dad at the water park I overheard the other day who yelled at his crying kid, saying, “What are you scared of? Don’t act like a baby.” These kinds of admonitions don’t actually make kids less fearful; they just ensure that kids feel bad about themselves and are less likely to come to you for help in the future. If anything, you want to engage with kids about their fears — ask them if they have specific concerns, or if they need anything from you to feel more comfortable, Chansky says.

Try not to focus on the nitty-gritty details of your kids’ meltdowns, too, Hershberg adds. If your kid has a tantrum because he claims he suddenly hates all his pajamas, keep in mind that his feelings probably aren’t really rooted in pajama woes. “It’s helpful to just kind of pan out and look at the big picture,” she says: Chances are, the pajamas were just an excuse to let out feelings that he’s been harboring about other things.

When it comes to summer activities and sports, you may also want to confer with your kids before signing them up. “If they say they don’t want to join an activity yet, or at all, listen to them. This is not the time to push them into new things or back into what we were doing before,” King says. “It’s not just about their interest level in an activity — it’s whether they feel they have the physical, social and emotional stamina to start a new thing. It’s also about feeling in control of the speed with which they enter the world again.”

If your child is especially worried about a particular event or activity — at his recent dental visit, my 10-year-old son found out he had a cavity, and he has been very concerned about what it will feel like to get it filled — reassure your kids that no matter what, they’ll get through it. You can even address the worst-case scenario by saying something like: “Okay, so let’s say your playdate, or the dentist visit, doesn’t go well — you’ll still make it through. We’ll still have pizza for dinner, and we’ll still read bedtime stories together.” You want your kids to recognize that they have the strength and support from you to endure whatever life throws at them — even if it feels new, scary or challenging.

Melinda Wenner Moyer is a science and parenting journalist. Her book “How To Raise Kids Who Aren’t A--holes” will be published on July 20.

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